Let’s talk birds and farming

Travel by train back from King’s Cross to the edge of Cambridge and our project area and you see just three main agricultural crops: winter wheat, winter barley and winter oilseed rape. Occasionally there is a crop of winter beans or spring barley. Winter crops predominate – crops that are sown in September or October and harvested the following autumn. Winter crops mean no over-winter stubble. No weedy stubbles means less winter food for wildlife. The fields are huge; there are no conservation headlands and hedges are small and tightly cut.

Fly into Stansted, look down on the fields of winter wheat in Essex and South Cambs and look for skylark conservation patches – small bare patches of ground where the seed drill was raised for a few seconds during sowing to provide skylark nest sites and you will see – none. The picture is a hostile farming environment to the detriment of biodiversity and bio-abundance of our local countryside.

It is difficult to describe the changes in the countryside surrounding our project area without sounding critical of farming and farmers. I try to avoid this, but it’s difficult to be a neutral about our countryside neighbourhood that has impoverished wildlife. Traditional crop rotations have been changed in the effort to increase profitability and soil structures are suffering. Crop yields using new varieties have changed little over the last 10 years and the push for greater productivity has encouraged the increased use of chemicals to boost performance. Black Grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) has become a serious competitor to winter cereals; headlands have been sprayed with herbicides to eradicate volunteer plants but the Black Grass has fought back and become resistant to some herbicides. Some crops of winter wheat look like fields of Black Grass. Insect pests have been controlled by systemic non-selective insecticides that remove target species and most others.

Yellow Wagtail (Red Listed)

 House Sparrow (Red Listed)

Neonics” (neonicotinoid) insecticides have been banned on Oilseed Rape to control cabbage stem flea beetle. This insect has become such a serious pest after a succession of mild winters and crop rotations of just winter wheat and winter oilseed rape, that many growers were unable to establish the crop for this harvest year. “Neonics” have been banned on all flowering crops to protect bees, but they can still be used on non-flowering crops such as sugar beet. Ask farmers, the seed trade and the agrochemical industries if “neonics” should be banned for causing a collapse in our countryside insect life and they will cite papers disputing the evidence which conservationists assert is incontrovertible, according to their research. It’s not just lowland arable farming; go to our uplands and all you see are sheep, and more sheep, and the occasional blocks of Corsican pine.

Anecdotal evidence from amateur naturalists, like ourselves, has noted the disappearance of bees and the general lack of insect abundance. What happens in the countryside affects us townies!

The Red List contains birds of conservation concern whose population has declined by 50% in the last 30 years and shows no sign of increasing. Nine are species of our resident farmland birds. This decline coincides with the switch to winter cropping and the loss of over-winter stubbles that provided a source of essential winter food. A recent winter survey (2017-2018) on a farm in the north of our project area showed that most of the farmland birds: Linnets, Yellowhammers, Grey Partridges – birds on the Red List – were concentrated on the only fields on the farm that had over-winter stubble. Two years earlier five pairs of Lapwings (another Red Listed species) attempted to nest there on over wintered stubbles – the first time for about 50 years. I believe lack of winter feed has caused the extinction of the rural House Sparrow (Red Listed) which used to nest in hedgerows in small colonies of untidy domed nests in our project area.

It’s not all bad news. The RSPB’s Hope Farm at Boxworth and Robin Page’s Countryside Restoration project at Barton have shown that you can run commercial farms and increase the number and diversity of farmland birds. To do that you must also provide a winter food supply and a rich and diverse insect fauna throughout the year– nestlings and young birds need a high protein rich insect diet to fledge and thrive. (Woodpigeons are the exception!)

Nine Wells, in our project area has, probably, the highest concentration of Grey Partridges in the County but this is threatened by the growth of Addenbrooke’s. The NIAB’s farm in the north of our project area has seeded permanent flower-rich field margins, ditches are only trimmed and cleared in winter and hedges are cut on a three-year cycle. This farm has one of the highest farmland breeding populations of Skylarks (Red Listed) in the country and breeding Yellow Wagtails (Red Listed) have returned. Quy Estates, on the edge of our project area, manage Wilbraham Fen and the traditional sheep grazing meadows nearby. It is probably the southern-most remnant of the Great Fen and must be one of the most interesting wetlands that is not a formal nature reserve.

Lapwing (Red Listed)

Wheatear (not Red Listed!)
birds of the uplands

The most exciting development is the Red List Revival project pioneered by Edward Darling on his farm near Therfield heath. He began this project to conserve bird species on his own farm and to encourage neighbouring farmers to do the same. Farms are surveyed twice a year during the breeding season (May/June) using the British Trust for Ornithology transect method and farms are awarded accolades for increasing bio-diversity, especially the birds.

But as townies we must not be hypocritical. We cannot criticise farmers if we have an arsenal of chemicals in our own garden sheds to kill slugs, snails, insects – anything that might maul, chew or consume our garden plants and vegetables. Cut a small access hole in the bottom of the garden fence and let the hedgehogs in!

Bob Jarman

8th June 2018